This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. We’re talking about the British Civil Wars, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. If you’re just joining us here, I recommend starting from the beginning so that you don’t get lost. Incidentally, if you’ve got this far, and you’re finding it a bit difficult to keep up with who everyone is, we’ve got you covered: head over to our website at pasttensepod.com, where you’ll find notes for every episode so far, including this one, and each one has a quick cheat sheet of who all the important players are. There are going to be quite a lot of Charleses and Williams and Thomases hanging about the place over the next few weeks, so if that’s helpful to you, do by all means use it.
Last episode we did a bit of a crash course in Scottish history up to the beginning of Charles’s reign, as well as the religious climate at the time. Religion was important in Scotland not just because it was intensely personal, but because the Scottish church found itself in opposition to the secular government on a fairly regular basis - as opposed to in England, where the church was inherently tied up with the government, and the king was the leader of both.
This time, we’re going to be heading back to Scotland, but I want to tell you in advance: this is where it all gets a bit messy. The stuff we’re going to be talking about over the next few episodes is all going to be happening at once, so today we’ll look at Scotland, next episode will be Ireland, and then we’ll circle back around again to England and tie it all together. I promise this is a more sensible way of doing it than it sounds - and hopefully it’ll mean that nobody gets lost on the way. Shall we get stuck in?
When we left Scotland last episode, Charles’s government and the popular end of the church were not getting on well at all, and riots had just broken out in Edinburgh over the Book of Common Prayer which had just been introduced by Charles and his Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. Those riots were not only participated in mostly by ordinary people, but they were framed as being about ordinary people - legend has it that the first person to throw a stool in St Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh was an ordinary woman, and of the people arrested for participation a good number were female servants - in fact, it’s a running theme of the observations about the riots on 23rd July 1637 that they involved a significant number of women. Actually - good anecdote - there was a rumour for a while that some of the women involved in the riot were actually men in disguise, because they threw their stools such an impressive distance. The disguise part is almost certainly untrue, but I wouldn’t dare speak for effectiveness of the furniture shot-put.
The implication here, at least as far as the propaganda about the riots goes, is that this was a popular, grassroots demonstration against intolerable moral conditions imposed by a distant king, trying to force this prayerbook on the people of Edinburgh - a prayerbook that had a different religious perspective to the dominant one in Scotland, and which - or so they worried - was sneakily trying to reintroduce Catholicism back where Catholicism ought not be.
Of course, there are several things about this that are not as they seem. For a start - there was no Catholic bogeyman; Laud was against Catholicism as much as the Scots were. The Book of Common Prayer was Arminian, not Catholic, and it wasn’t an English prayerbook - even if the consultation had turned out to be ineffective, it was still designed to be a common prayerbook, for Scotland as much as for England. For another thing, the riots against the prayerbook were not really as grassroots and spontaneous as they seemed to be. Let’s be real here: the proclamation that the new prayerbook was coming had happened seven months ago by now. Nobody just sits and twiddles their thumbs for seven months, and then spontaneously bursts out rioting. Besides which, Edinburgh was a small city, people talked to each other - there might have been a lot of serving women out and demonstrating, but everyone knew whose servants they were, and those employers weren’t exactly blameless and out of touch. I’m not trying to imply some shadowy cabal behind the riots, but the choice of Jenny Geddes, the housewife who threw a chair, as a symbol of dissent against what was going on, is at least a little bit misleading. It tells a story, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
For a seventeenth-century city in the depths of riots, perhaps you’d expect a few flaming pitchforks - but actually the Edinburgh riots were rather restrained. There were no barricades. Edinburgh didn’t have a militia so there weren’t too many violent clashes. Later on in England we’d see riots that broke church property, burned paintings and books, and burned down buildings. Here, there were some stones thrown through windows, and some of the Privy Council and the bishops got manhandled around a bit - you might remember from the end of Episode 3, the Bishop of Edinburgh going down the Royal Mile in his carriage from St Giles to Holyroodhouse, and getting jeered at and having stones pelted at his carriage. But again, it’s hardly the French Revolution, is it? Even in Ireland, a couple of years after this, there would be far more serious violence than there was in Edinburgh. Which tells you something, I think, about the purpose of what’s going on: it’s not to burn bridges or to overthrow the system, the point was to make a lot of noise and get their views incorporated.
Another thing I love is that the people of Edinburgh clearly understood that sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can make everybody think you wet yourself. There was a wave of satire - and a lot of it in poetical form, from print sheets suggesting that the reason David Lindsay, the Bishop of Edinburgh, was hiding was not because of the prayerbook but just that he smelled really bad, and some bright spark realised that in a 1630s Edinburgh accent (which I’m not even going to attempt) Lord Traquair - who you may remember was basically leading the Privy Council at the moment - rhymed with “liar”. Proponents of the prayerbook or the king’s attempt to introduce it were branded un-Scottish, and interestingly there’s an attitude that existed in England at the same time too, that it’s not the king that was the problem, because of course he just wants to do the best for his people. It’s the king’s evil advisers that are the issue. In this case, that means Archbishop Laud, it means Traquair, and it means James, the Marquis of Hamilton, a Scotsman who was the king’s royal commissioner and one of his closest advisers. You’ll recognise Hamilton from the little bonus episode last time - he’d been a friend of Charles’s for a very long time by now. There were a couple of others as well, but those are the ones we’re most concerned about right now.
This attitude of “the king doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but we can help” is, I think, another piece in the puzzle of how the monarchy was viewed in Scotland, and indeed in England, at the time, that makes it quite different from later revolutions. Because it’s not that people decided they didn’t want a king, or even that they wanted to limit his powers or temper them with some kind of broader democracy - in 1637, what people wanted was for the system as it stood to work, and not to be abused. A lot of the rhetoric of about this time isn’t forward looking or trying to build a new, better future - it’s backward looking - revolving, if you will - as if they’re trying to remember a glorious time in the past when the systems that existed worked perfectly, and the people in charge governed fairly and kindly, and presumably kids showed a bit of respect to their elders and everyone had proper conversations round the dinner table. That time never existed. It’s still never existed. But there’s this story we tell ourselves today of the before-time where everything worked like it was supposed to and I suppose for us today it’s that people kept calm and carried on. But in the same way as we sort of hark back to this golden time which never actually happened, that’s exactly what was going on in 1637. In Scotland now their problem was with the possibility of unscrupulous politicians and bishops sneaking Catholicism back into the halls of power where it wasn’t wanted. This isn’t radical in the sense that we might use the term today - of giving the whole system a complete overhaul. There was still this feeling that somewhere in the unspecified past, the system had worked, and it could work again.
So on that basis we’ve got the king basically being equated with the system of government - because that’s how it was conceived of back then - and then we get all this vitriol against the corrupt and evil advisers leading him astray, and on the other hand these ordinary people trying to reach Charles to convince him to behave in the way which to them was obviously right. That might account for the fact that the Edinburgh riots contained so little violence - a lot of the protesters saw themselves not as protesting against the king, but against the people leading the king astray. What had actually happened, according to them, was that the king had misunderstood the Bible, which led him to completely mistakenly thinking that the book of common prayer was a good thing - and actually it was his evil advisers who had snuck some Catholicism into it without the king realising. The protesters thought they were clearly in the right, firstly to point this out and secondly to refuse to use the offending book, and since the king was also always right on account of being the king - obviously the way of squaring that circle was that the protesters were in actual fact being loyal to Charles, and he’d definitely agree with them if he just had the right information and understood what was going on.
Meanwhile, when news made it to actual real life King Charles, rather than the nonconformist Presbyterian imagined version of him, he was hopping mad. He immediately gave orders to the Scottish Privy Council that the people responsible for the riots in Edinburgh be tried and punished, and that the prayerbook continued to be used. But within a few weeks of those orders arriving in Scotland, a collection of ministers from around Scotland sent various petitions of their own to the Privy Council to be passed on to Charles, basically saying, please don’t make us do this, we don’t want to get chairs thrown at our heads. The Privy Council was stuck between a rock and a hard place, so they agreed to set up a committee to try the leaders of the riots, but in the light of recent events they decided that what Charles actually meant was that everyone had to buy the prayerbook, but maybe it would be a bit wiser to not force them to actually use it. You know, at least for a bit.
Poor Traquair actually got a lot of the blame for the disturbances of July 23rd. He wasn’t even in the city that Sunday, for reasons that may have included a relative’s wedding but which sounded to everyone like an excuse to be nowhere near Edinburgh. As far as everyone was concerned - the protesters, the Privy Council, Charles - it was sheer cowardice. Either way, layer that on top of everything else, and we’ve got a Privy Council trying to keep the peace between two very adamant sides - and the Council itself is basically being led by someone who everyone thinks is a coward and a liar. Traquair in particular and the Privy Council in general seemed by now to have realised that the only way to keep everything from grinding to a halt was basically to not tell the king what was going on north of Hadrian’s Wall - as much to stop him putting his foot into it as to stop him panicking. So the king barely knew what was going on, and at the same time the protesters were convinced that if the king did hear their point of view, then he’d definitely change his mind and be persuaded.
And so there’s sort of an uneasy stasis for a month or so, while the Privy Council tried desperately to keep the peace and also to sweep as much as possible under the carpet, right the way through to the middle of September, when the news went around that the Council was going to meet to receive Charles’s latest round of instructions. Given that his last round of requests had been one, to punish the rioters, and two, to enforce the prayerbook, there had been remarkably little of either of those things going on, so I think it’s fair to say that everyone was a bit worried about how these new proclamations were going to go.
On the same day that the Council was due to meet in Edinburgh, another meeting was also happening - containing twenty-odd noblemen, some other gentry, eighty or so nonconformist ministers from the Scottish church, and a selection of parish commissioners and other men with some influence. That might not sound like a lot of people, but we’re talking about a full fifth of the Scottish nobility here - and maybe one in ten ministers. Lord Balmerino was there, who had just been pardoned by Charles the previous year after being sentenced to death for his critical annotations to the prayerbook’s draft, and plenty of the other attendees had also either been in that group who was critical of the prayerbook, or else they were already known for their religious dissent. If the message of the Edinburgh riots two months earlier was that this was personal, this hit the ordinary people as much as the rulers of the land, then the meeting on 20th September was designed to show that disagreeing with the prayerbook was a respectable thing to do, that clever and cool-headed and influential people did - it’s not just an excuse for a good riot. The dissenters put together a petition, and before the Council meeting was due to start later, they presented their petition to the Council, basically to be read alongside whatever missive came from the King.
The king, in his defence, still had no real idea of what was going on in Edinburgh, and on the basis that for him it was entirely reasonable and nothing at all had changed to make it a stupid thing to do, his orders for the Privy Council were to one, punish the rioters, and two, enforce the use of the prayerbook. He didn’t acknowledge that this was - let’s face it - a near-impossible thing for the Council to achieve. There were no concessions, no guidance. To be fair to Charles, nobody had told him how serious the situation was in Edinburgh - and also to be fair to him, that’s probably because he blew up at anyone who tried to explain it. For his councillors, it was a complete dilemma. There was no way to win.
And from there it grew - from having been a matter of a few words out of place, a nuanced difference between English Arminian worship and Scottish Presbyterian worship, the Book of Common Prayer became a symbol of all that was terrible and ungodly, something to be denounced in its entirety at all costs. In October, Charles ordered the Privy Council to expel all the protesters from Edinburgh, and also to go to sit in Linlithgow where it would be quieter. The protesters had no intention of leaving Edinburgh, and there was another wave of riots over the next few days, and another supplication drafted up - which, again, Charles entirely ignored. This time, the supplication had gone from having fewer than 200 signatures to nearly 500, from all over the Lowlands. The poor Privy Council had no easy way to go forward, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that most of them weren’t in the capital any more, and there weren’t enough of them in Linlithgow to reach quorum and get anything actually productive done. They were left flailing wildly; Charles was being completely pig-headed even if we take into account the fact that nobody was telling him what was going on in Scotland any more in case he got angry at them or tried to have them arrested for treason, and at the end of 1637 the only people who were really able to move forward in any way were the protesters.
By the end of December it got so bad, and the exchange of information between Charles and his councillors got so sparse, that Traquair was summoned down to London to talk to Charles in person. He got there, only to discover that the other Scottish lords had ratted him out to Charles for trying to deal with the protesters and smooth things over. Now the king had the chance to find out what was actually going on, first hand, from the man who had to deal with it. But he was a bit preoccupied - if you remember a few weeks ago when we were talking about what was going on in England, November 1637 was when the judgement for John Hampden’s Ship Money case came out, and had just narrowly squeaked in Charles’s favour, so alongside all this he was fielding accusations of corruption and half the nobles of England refusing to pay him money that he thought he was owed. So he was not, fairly understandably, in the mood to give people a lot of leeway when he thought they were messing him around. That said, the situation in Scotland did at least require the tiniest bit of sensitivity… and Charles didn’t give it. So when Traquair made it back up to Edinburgh in February 1638, he had to present a proclamation which was possibly the most inflammatory thing that Charles could possibly have given him. I can’t think of anything worse that doesn’t involve saying yes, you guys were right all along, we’re going back to Catholicism. Charles gave not an inch - he wanted the prayerbook to be used, actively, by everyone - and he directly associated it with himself, rather than with his bishops and with Laud, like the Scottish Privy Council had been trying to do up to this point. If the protesters disagreed with the prayerbook, it was now with the king’s own personal will, directly stated by him. There was no longer any hiding behind the idea that the king would definitely understand if only his wicked advisers would stop leading him astray.
This proclamation was read out in Stirling on 19th February, and repeated in Edinburgh and Linlithgow over the next few days, and by the very next week, the protesters had their response. They wrote what they referred to originally as a confession of faith, in the Christian tradition of everyone standing up and declaring together what they believe in. I don’t know when exactly they chose to give it its final title, which refers to a solemn religious promise, but within the week this thing was drafted, and edited, and copied out to distribute around the country, and on February 28th 1638, in Greyfriars kirk in the middle of Edinburgh, the document we know as the National Covenant was first read out, considered, and signed.
If you’ve ever been to Edinburgh, you’ll probably have walked past Greyfriars churchyard - it’s smack bang in the middle of the old town, a beautiful church surrounded by this peaceful, ancient graveyard, and a view of the castle in the background. This is probably a very silly thing, but Edinburgh castle always seems to me like it’s been there forever, like somewhere back in the mists of time a group of marauding pre-Scotsmen just happened across a castle grown straight of the rock, and decided to go and live in it. It has somehow this feeling of permanence to it - like it doesn’t matter whether it happened to be held by the Scottish or the English at whatever point in history, the castle was still this running thread through the entirety of Edinburgh’s history, immovable and unchanging no matter what was happening around it. That’s all terribly fanciful, I know, but if you’re in Edinburgh you can go and stand in the graveyard of Greyfriars kirk, and look up at the castle, and whenever I do these days I always think about those men signing the National Covenant, nearly four hundred years ago, looking up at the castle and deciding which monolith of society was more important to them, their church or their king. Which is more dependable, more permanent. And making their choice. At the risk of this turning into a bit of a tourist announcement for Edinburgh, you can actually go into the National Museum just across the road and see the original copy of the National Covenant, signed in Edinburgh that day. It’s not the only version, of course - the Covenant was copied out and sent around the parishes and towns of the Scottish lowlands, and it was quickly signed by thousands of men around the country. But that genesis, that very first one, now lives in the museum - tucked a little out of the way, but barely two hundred yards from the place it was first signed. I’m a gigantic nerd, I know, but to me, that’s a little piece of magic.
The National Covenant gave the protesters against Charles’s religious policies something to rally under, and also a new name: the Covenanters. Later on in the century, the Covenanters are remembered as being a fringe group, associated with the Jacobites but without the sparkling sense of humour. But now, in 1638, they’re on their way up.
The actual text of the Covenant is part of the reason they have a reputation for having no sense of humour - because it’s more than 4000 words long, and it’s got quite a constitutional feel to it, in the sense that it refers to older Acts of Parliament, and mostly talks about how the signatories believed Scotland should be run. But it finishes up with this absolute beast of a paragraph, which I am not even going to attempt to do in the right accent, but here it is:
We promise and sweare, that we shall, to the uttermost of our power, with our meanes and lives, stand to the defence of our dread Soveraigne, the Kings Majesty, his Person, and Authority, in the defence and preservation of the foresaid true Religion, Liberties and Lawes of the Kingdom: As also to the mutual defence and assistance, every one of us another in the same cause of maintaining the true Religion and his Majesty’s Authority.
There’s a super bit of verbal gymnastics going on there, because you’ll notice that it sounds very much like a promise to defend and support the King. But the reasoning went, the King will naturally get religion right, so by defending the true religion, that counts as defending the King, even if the King just gave clear, direct orders to do the opposite thing. The majority of the men who signed the National Covenant probably didn’t diligently read all 4000 words of it, but they knew what it meant - it meant defining loyalty in such a way as to choose the radical church over the King’s own word.
Just a quick aside here - because the signing of the National Covenant marks a small but significant switch, I think, back from the private to the political - because of course, the only people who signed it were men. Jenny Geddes and co had done their job, registered their objections, joined in as far as they were allowed to - and now we go back to the men doing the politics and the legalese and the serious business again. Hooray. Anyway.
Having taken Edinburgh by storm, copies were quickly sent around Scotland to be signed by other local ministers and leaders. Which is not to say that all the local leaders did sign it - just as England didn’t speak with one voice for or against the king, in Scotland there was plenty of division too. Parts of the Highlands were pro-Episcopacy just like Charles was, and in fact some highland areas were still holding out as Catholic and wouldn’t be signing any Presbyterian declaration any time soon, thank you very much. Other places were just moderate - ministers in St Andrews and Crail refused to sign the National Covenant, and in fact a group of ministers in Aberdeen, known as the “Aberdeen Doctors”, refused to sign it for a whole year, despite increasing pressure from Covenanter leaders. Generally speaking, the Highlands were a lot slower than the Lowlands to sign the Covenant, so over March and April of 1638, some of the leading Covenanters basically went on tour round the north of Scotland - to Inverness, Forres, Elgin, to get as many of the local gentry as possible to sign it. Many of them did. But a significant number of them didn’t.
Meanwhile at the beginning of March, the Privy Council met in Stirling. They were well aware of everything that was going on, but they quickly decided there was nothing useful they could do. Only one of the bishops actually turned up to the meeting, and no one was about to defend them in their absence. Besides which, the council was effectively useless now. They weren’t going to be the ones to change anything.
In May, Charles decided to get the big guns out, and sent the Earl of Hamilton up to Scotland. Hamilton was a Scotsman, but he’d lived most of his life in London at court. Even so, he was probably best placed among Charles’s Scottish advisers to go up to Scotland and mediate - if only because he’d kept a low enough profile so far that he wasn’t directly identified in Scotland with Charles’s religious policies. The issue, unfortunately, is that Hamilton was not a very good negotiator. He was often most interested in - or distracted by - personal gain; subtlety and diplomacy weren’t his strongest suits; he had a tendency to get on people’s nerves or to try and lord it over them. If he were a character in a book, I’d have a soft spot for him as a flawed man in a difficult spot. But of course history is real life, and that makes all the difference - so let’s just say that I find the Earl of Hamilton fascinating and very human, for all that he infuriated a lot of people.
When Hamilton came up to Scotland, he brought as many Scottish people as he could find from the English court, essentially to try and exert as much influence over them and their tenants and vassals and friends as he possibly could. It was a good gambit, but it completely underestimated the popular support of the Covenant, which by now was huge, especially in the southern half of Scotland. But his job wasn’t to get the Covenanters to capitulate. He knew that wasn’t going to happen, before he even made it to Edinburgh, and Charles knew it wasn’t going to happen either. Hamilton’s job was essentially to keep everyone relatively calm, and try and buy Charles some time, while he covertly tried to drum up some troops in England to take up north and crush what he rightly saw as an imminent rebellion.
So this was round about June 1638 - at the same time, the Covenanters were getting organised. It’s really interesting, because they had this rhetoric of being very democratic, very grassroots - they elected a new president every day for June and July, basically to make sure it looked like everyone was getting a chance to join in and nobody was left out. This is incredibly forward thinking for 1638! There’s this whole narrative of popular support for the National Covenant, with the common folk as involved in it as the men at the top. Of course, this isn’t actually true. I’ve said before, in Scotland far more than England there was a culture of being visibly chummy with your local lord, but alongside that there was a huge expectation of loyalty, and that’s exactly the same with the Covenanters. So let’s not get too excited about how progressive all this seems: sure, lots of people were allowed to join in, come to the debates, sign the piece of paper - but there actually was a small group of noblemen behind the scenes keeping everything on course, making sure everyone toed the line, even if somebody else had just been elected president for the day. At this point, those were Lord Rothes, the Earl of Loudon, and the Marquis of Montrose, as well as Alexander Henderson, a leading clergyman very much on the radical end of Presbyterianism. Even the original signing of the Covenant at Greyfriars’ Kirk in Edinburgh was carefully managed by social rank.
But actually the Covenanters too seemed to have grasped the idea that Charles might be tempted to shut them up by force, and they prepared for it, and also sent emissaries up to the Highlands, including Aberdeen again, to have another go at winning over the Aberdeen Doctors and all the other people who’d refused to sign the National Covenant first time round. They… weren’t completely successful at that? But by the time July came around, it was obvious that the Covenanters were making military preparations, and so was the king.
Unfortunately for Charles - a phrase I feel like I’m using quite a lot at the moment - he’d been a bit overoptimistic about how many people in England might want a war with Scotland. He didn’t have as many troops or arms as he wanted, so he also started playing nice with the Highlanders, and also pulling some troops back across from Ireland - oh yes, there’s stuff kicking off in Ireland as well at the minute, which we’ll get to in the next episode - and he really needed Hamilton to stall everyone a bit longer so he could get them together. He did this in two ways: firstly, by trying to get Hamilton to make all the Scots sign a confession of faith from 1590 - as sort of a replacement to the National Covenant, which basically everyone including Hamilton seems to have rolled their eyes at - and secondly, by calling a General Assembly. Which would include bishops. This was a pretty good move, actually - immediately the Covenanters started arguing about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to join in a General Assembly, should there be bishops, should there be non-churchmen, should there be anyone at all who disagreed with the Covenanters, and so forth, and it bought Charles an extra few months to try and get his armies together. Eventually at the end of September, it was agreed that a General Assembly would meet in Glasgow, on 21st November.
The question of who should be allowed to join the General Assembly was a big one, which really showcases I think how narrow the thinking of the Covenanters was. They didn’t want bishops to be present, because they thought bishops didn’t have authority to make decisions - but on the other hand, they thought only their own church leaders had that authority. They didn’t want any secular leaders involved at all - and it took a while for them to basically decide that getting other nobles on side was worth letting them help make decisions. But when they failed to get Hamilton to agree not to let bishops into the Assembly - surprise, surprise - they resorted instead to trying to bully the bishops into staying away. They were partly successful. But this isn’t some kind of “power to the people” movement. If anything, it was in some ways even more socially conservative than what Charles was gunning for. And that, I think, is why the Covenanters aren’t very popular today. Yes, they were popular, they were grassroots, but they weren’t advocating for freedom or tolerance, just a different flavour of narrow-mindedness.
In the meantime, the king’s own replacement covenant got 28,000 signatures, almost half of which were in Aberdeen. I’ve actually looked all over the place to find out how many signatories there were to the actual National Covenant, and I can’t find a figure anywhere - presumably it’s rather difficult to pin down, since there were so many different documents floating around the whole country, but we can safely say that there were orders of magnitude more than Charles’s covenant got.
So everyone turned up in Glasgow on Wednesday 21st November, for what’s now known as the Glasgow Assembly - and when I say everyone I mean a load of leading Covenanters, not very many bishops, some members of the aristocracy and gentry… and a lot of members of the public, pretty much all of whom were strongly Covenanting. Poor old Hamilton was there as the King’s commissioner. And this is where you either start to love or loathe the Covenanters, because they are some of history’s greatest purveyors of red tape and rules lawyering. So immediately they started arguing about whether it was legitimate for all the delegates of the assembly to be there, and on what basis. And then they insisted that there should be a formally chosen moderator, and badgered Hamilton until he agreed to let the assembly elect one, at which point they voted in Alexander Henderson, a leading Covenanter. All that took up the first two days - then they decided they really needed to elect a clerk for the assembly. They ignored Hamilton’s suggestion and picked another leading Covenanter. That took them all the way through to the Friday afternoon, then they argued their way through whether everyone else had legitimate commissions to be there until Saturday afternoon, took a day off on Sunday because religion, and picked up the argument about commissions on Monday 26th November. On Tuesday 27th, Alexander Henderson, the moderator, asked if he could nominate some advisers to assist him with all his paperwork, and promptly nominated fifteen friends to help him out. So that’s the first week of the Glasgow Assembly. It’s like the world’s worst conference.
You’d think that Hamilton would be angry at this, but remember - his goal right now was to keep the Covenanters occupied and stall for time while Charles got his army together. So he was quite content to shut up and let them get on with it.
By Tuesday evening, it was clear that the Covenanters had got their act together, there wasn’t much opposition to them, and they would very soon be ready to start making substantive decisions through the assembly - and the first decision was almost certainly going to involve getting rid of bishops. So he decided to dissolve the whole thing, before it did any more damage. He went in on the morning of Wednesday 28th November 1638, announced he was stopping the Assembly, had a gigantic shouting match with some of the Covenanting leaders, including Rothes and Loudoun, told them all that any further decisions they made would be presumed not to be made in the name of the King, and then got up and strode for the exit. It would probably have been quite impressive, only, someone had locked the doors and hidden the key, so he had to break down the front door of Glasgow Cathedral in order to actually leave. It’s not quite saying “Good day, sir” and flouncing into a broom cupboard, but we can’t have everything. And out he went.
All the Privy Councillors followed him, except for one - the Duke of Argyll. He’ll be important later. And then Hamilton put together a proclamation saying that if the Glasgow Assembly continued to sit, they’d all be traitors, and everything they tried to do would be null and void.
But the Glasgow Assembly didn’t stop. They weren’t scared of Hamilton. They decided that, while it was of course legal for the King to call an Assembly, he or his representative couldn’t unilaterally dissolve something that had been legally called. So they kept going - and over the next few weeks, they declared a load of past General Assemblies they disagreed with to be illegal, they banned the Book of Common Prayer, and on December 8th they decided that there should be no more episcopacy in the Scottish Kirk. Bishops and archbishops were out. Eight of them were promptly excommunicated. Then they banned the printing of religious texts without the Kirk’s consent, and affirmed the power of the Kirk to call future assemblies every year. They re-signed the National Covenant, with a few extra addenda, including the ban on episcopacy, and extra powers for the newly reorganised Kirk. And finally, the Assembly dissolved itself. It wasn’t quite a coup, because a coup involves military force. But at this point, it might as well have been.
Unlike in England, in Scotland we now have two distinct sides - on one side the King, with Sir Jacob Astley fortifying Carlisle and Berwick south of the border, and Hamilton, Huntly and Traquair up north; and on the other the Covenanters, headed up by the Duke of Argyll, and Lord Rothes, and the Marquis of Montrose who also turned up in the bonus episode last time. Both sides were arming themselves. Not even covertly - right out in the open, knowing what would probably come next. But this isn’t any old Anglo-Scottish war. Neither of them really wanted to fight. The Covenanters didn’t want to cross the border into England - they actually saw the English as their friends, living under the same king, rather than as a country opposed to them. They also had no intention of ousting Charles as king, they just wanted to have their way on religion. Charles, on the other hand, didn’t want to crush anyone in Scotland - he just wanted to restore order in a place where he was technically still in charge, but nobody was listening to him. In the meantime, there was actually a group of Scottish councillors and lords of session who were so determined they didn’t want war, they resolved to go and beg Charles to stop - but Charles had so much else on his plate he wasn’t bothered about listening to them, and the Covenanters wouldn’t let them go south to do it.
In the new year of 1639, Hamilton had the king’s plate and tapestry shipped to England from Holyrood, just in case. Then he went down to London. On January 26th, Charles proclaimed his intention to march on Scotland, and headed towards York. It was on. Well, sort of. England at the beginning of 1639 was increasingly volatile in its own right, and many people in England did not want war with Scotland. For a start, it cost a lot of money! For another thing, it distracted Charles from their own complaints down south. So it took a few months for Charles to get as far as York, gathering his troops as he went.
We call what happened next the First Bishops’ War, although it was Charles’s war rather than much to do with any bishops, and honestly even calling it a war is a bit rich. The war is usually dated as starting March 1639, which is when the Covenanters fairly swiftly took over Edinburgh Castle, about three other Scottish castles holding out for the king, and the city of Aberdeen, over the course of about a week and a half. Aberdeen was still refusing to sign the National Covenant at this point, but when Montrose and Alexander Leslie headed towards them, Huntly for the King just didn’t bother fighting. Aberdeen was occupied without a fight on 30th March. There was no bloodshed, no shooting, hardly anything you could call the storming of a keep up and down the country, and yet Charles’s supporters in Scotland just lost the vast majority of their bases. Nobody from England had even crossed the border in March, or even in April, never mind actually doing any fighting. Traquair fled south and was useless to everyone for the foreseeable, and Huntly made it to Edinburgh, refused once again to sign the National Covenant, and was imprisoned with his two sons in Edinburgh Castle. If you’re counting, that leaves only one of Charles’s leaders actually in Scotland by the end of April, and that was Hamilton. Everyone else was gathering just south of the border, ready to mount an invasion, of sorts.
Charles took his time heading north, consolidating his troops on the way, and finally made it to Newcastle on May 6th. I say he consolidated his troops - they were untrained, they weren’t being paid - remember how much of the economy around this time was based on credit - and then there was a smallpox outbreak. So everyone was having the time of their lives. It took another two weeks before anything actually interesting happened - the shot fired was a Scottish cavalryman at an English corporal, and - look, this is completely underwhelming, the Englishman didn’t even die. It was a tiny little skirmish, on the banks of the Tweed; after the Englishman was shot, non-fatally in the chest, his side shot and killed the offending Scotsman, and then both sides ran away, back the ways they’d come from. Hooray. Three days after that, Britain experienced a solar eclipse. All the celestial signs were saying, let’s not do this war.
So they didn’t. Both sides spent another couple of weeks trying to get their various respective troops together, and posturing wildly - the Covenanters weren’t actually doing much better in terms of numbers of troops and armaments - and then at the beginning of June Charles sent a messenger to the Covenanter leaders asking to go and negotiate. He was playing for time again, waiting for troops to come across from Ireland and the Highlands, but the Covenanters agreed, and on 19th June they signed a treaty known as the Pacification of Berwick, in which the Covenanters promised to stand down, and Charles promised to withdraw his troops, and to allow the Scots a free General Assembly and a free Parliament. Crucially, both sides were most concerned about getting the peace out of the way so that they wouldn’t be attacked by what each side thought was superior numbers. So they kept the terms vague, and resolved to hammer out the details in more depth later. But there you go, that’s the end of the First Bishops’ War. Wasn’t it exciting? It’s always nice not to overstretch yourself on the first go.
I joke, but I think there’s a lesson to be learned from the First Bishops’ War - and indeed the Second Bishops’ War, which wasn’t really very much different. And that is that so little of these wars involves actual combat. There’s much more traipsing through woodland than proper physical fighting, and honestly more posturing than anything else. There are two reasons you go out onto the battlefield - either because you think you have no choice, and it’s a last desperate stand, or more likely because you think you have a chance at winning. That’s why, I think, the British Civil Wars have a lot of little skirmishes and ambushes in them, and relatively few massive all-out battles. You have to be in a very particular sort of place to want an all-out battle. You have to have done quite a bit of planning.
Anyhow. The moment the Pacification of Berwick was signed, both sides started bickering over what exactly they’d meant by the various terms in it - Charles insisted that the Covenanters had promised him loyalty, and the Covenanters insisted he’d given them freedom to choose Scotland’s state religion. And when they were actually faced with the king, some of the more moderate Covenanters - like the Marquis of Montrose - started to think about how happy they actually were to put this new religion ahead of Charles’s own government, and how far they were willing to go. Charles had promised to call a new General Assembly in Scotland, and of course the Glasgow Assembly had ruled that new General Assemblies couldn’t have bishops in them - so immediately the bickering started to turn sour, and then to break down entirely.
With that in mind, Charles decided to bring out the big guns. He stood down the chief lieutenants he had been working with, including the military general Astley, and also Hamilton - who had been trying throughout this to quietly communicate with some of the Covenanter leaders, and who Charles was just about beginning to not trust in the slightest. Then, he promoted Archbishop William Laud to be one of his very highest advisers. And finally, he called on Thomas Wentworth, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, to come home and help with Scotland.
Thomas Wentworth was a Yorkshireman, who had worked his way up from the minor gentry, to be a member of the English Parliament - he’d actually signed the Petition of Right way back in 1628, protesting some of Charles’s monetary policies. But he’d changed his tune fairly dramatically after that, and become one of Charles’s most effective Privy Councillors. Charles and Wentworth didn’t actually get on very well personally - it was obvious that Wentworth was motivated very strongly by his own ambition, which I think Charles saw as a little bit vulgar - but he got away with it by also being an excellent, ruthless strategist, very good with finances and with the running of administrations. Wentworth was promoted to be Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1632, and he spent seven years across there, until Charles called him back to England in the late summer of 1639, along with some of his Irish troops, to deal with the turbulence in Scotland.
There was enough going on in Ireland at the time that this by itself tells us something about the situation: Wentworth was quite possibly the best strategist that Charles had, and he was in Ireland for a reason. So the fact that he was summoned back should start ringing some alarm bells for us by itself. But Wentworth was great with secular administration, and that was what he thought the issue was - he thought the Scots’ problem with Charles was his heavy-handed government. He didn’t factor in the religious issues at all - Wentworth was tone deaf when it came to religion. And at any rate, his appearance turned out not to be enough - by the end of 1639, it became very clear that Charles was trying to subdue the Scots by force, rather than to reach any kind of compromise, and as it stood that tactic just wouldn’t work. But there was no way Charles was going to be able to win in any kind of military way without the support of the English administration.
It had been, by now, eleven years since the last Parliament had been dissolved. A lot changes in eleven years - can you remember where you were, and what you were doing eleven years ago? England had changed, Britain had changed a lot in eleven years, and perhaps Charles and everyone else had forgotten how much of an obstruction the English Parliament had been. Perhaps the matter of the Scottish Covenanters was so pressing now that he thought that dealing with another English Parliament was the lesser of two evils. Either way, on 13th April 1640, the King called another Parliament - and brought an end to his Personal Rule. Not in a blaze of glory, but in desperation.
It lasted three weeks. We call it the Short Parliament. And this is where Charles really got a wake-up call - just because he had been ruling by himself down in England didn’t mean that everything was going absolutely fine down there; with all the groups in all of his territories who were starting to turn on him, he was going to have to co-operate with somebody, sometime, or else England, and Scotland, and Ireland, would start to implode.
And I’ll give you three guesses as to how that one would go. First two guesses don’t count.
Next episode, we’re going to head west to Ireland, to talk about the situation there - which was already at least as volatile as it was in Scotland - and also to see what Thomas Wentworth had been doing for the last few years before he was called back to England.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was written by me, Fiona Barnett. The producer is Emily Benita, and the sound editor and technical producer is Ali Alnajjar. The historical consultant was Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and performed by Harry Harris. You can find notes for this episode, including a bibliography and a list of key names (because I know there are a lot of them) on our website at pasttensepod.com. For this episode, I’ve relied quite heavily on the work of Professor David Stevenson, which is an absolute joy to read. If you like what we do here, you can help to support our work at patreon.com/pasttensepod. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter as @pasttensepod, so do drop in and say hello - and if you could possibly find a moment to review us on iTunes or wherever you found us, we’d be delighted. That and telling your friends are the best ways there are for us to get Past Tense to people who might enjoy it. In the meantime, we’ll be back in two weeks.